Another Kingdom by Andrew Klavan
THE TRUTH IS? BY THE TIME EVERYTHING WENT CRAZY, I was pretty much crazy already. Edgy, anxious, hypochondriacal. Thirty years old and I hardly recognized myself. I mean, there was a time, I used to be somebody. Not somebody famous—just a dude—but somebody. I used to be able to look in the mirror and say, That’s me. That’s Austin Lively. Now? I was lost in a dark wood. Hollywood, ha ha. I’d been told that Hollywood was where you went if you wanted to sell your soul to make movies. I went, but I never sold my soul. No one would buy it. I just got tired of carrying it around.
I did sell a script once. Right out of film school. A daring, original, deeply personal take on the sci-fi epics that were all the rage. Three Days in Forever, it was called. I sold Three Days in Forever to one of the major studios, then spent the next two years in development meetings with producers and studio executives. You ever see jackals gutting the carcass of a once-beautiful gazelle? That’s what the development meetings were like. My script was the gazelle. The producers and executives were the jackals. I was the asshole. The movie never got made.
After that? I wrote a script my agent couldn’t sell. Then I wrote a script my agent wouldn’t sell. Then … then came that day, when either I went berserk or the world did or we both went berserk together. I still don’t know which.
I slumped into Hitchcock’s Cafe that morning wearing my sorrows like a thundercloud hat. Hitchcock’s was a NoHo tavern of stained wood and white fairy lights. Bar to your left as you came in. Liquor bottles glittering green and white and brown-red with the light from the flat screen where the TV news was flickering. Tables to your right. Hollywood hopefuls nursing coffee over their laptops. Posters from old suspense films hung on the walls here and there: glamorous stars of the forties and fifties making fearful faces with images of danger surrounding them, speeding trains and gunmen and heroes dangling from the Statue of Liberty’s lamp. Somehow, the antique one-sheets gave the place an arty glamour.
There was my crew at the long table by the restroom door. Jane Janeway, Ted Wexler, Wren Yen, and Chad Valentine. Wannabes, sellouts, and hangers-on. Oh my. Not a one of us older than thirty-three and all of us gone so wrong so young. They were picking at their muffins and yogurts and coffee and reading the postings on their handheld devices. None of them said a word, not even hello, as I plunked down among them. Only Jane bothered to smile. But then, she was in love with me.
Schuyler Cohen pushed out through the kitchen door. She was the waitress but also one of us. A large, buxom woman ballooning the unofficial Hitchcock uniform of black T-shirt, black skirt, and black tights. Short, spiky red hair and a face at once cherubic and furious. She was trying to be a comic, working open mic nights at clubs. Slinging jokes about what pigs men are. Like all comics, she was angry and miserable. I never met one who wasn’t.
She smacked my coffee mug down in front of me like a hanging judge’s gavel. Schuyler hated me. Because she actually kind of liked me. But she loved Jane Janeway, who let her live in her house but wasn’t interested in her because she was interested in me. It was complicated.
I lifted the mug to my lips and stared bleakly through the steam.
“What a bunch,” I said bitterly. “Staring at our devices. We don’t even look at each other anymore.”
Ted Wexler raised his eyes from his handheld and studied me. Wex was assistant to a literary agent. He aspired to be a sleazy, unctuous dirtbag like his boss, and he was well on his way. “I’m looking at you,” he said. “You look like shit.”
Chad and Wren Yen gave me one curious glance apiece. Chad was a short, slim aspiring actor of the boyishly brooding type. I never knew what he did for money. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Wren, across from him, was a Eurasian stunner, tall and lean. A receptionist in real life, a model in her dreams. I’m not sure I ever heard her speak, but the corners of her mouth lifted expressively sometimes. Now she nodded.
And Chad said, “Wow, you do look like shit. Almost exactly.”
Schuyler paused in tidying up the crumbs around Jane’s granola. Took a look for herself. “The resemblance is uncanny.”
Jane—tenderhearted Jane—started to say, “Cut it out, you guys,” but then she saw me too and said, “Oh. Wow.”
Jane was mousey, slump-shouldered, and shy, but she could’ve been lovely. She had a slim, graceful figure, a sweet, gentle, oval face. She played her looks way down by wearing drab clothes and too little makeup and by letting her long, straight hair hang in limp brown strands. She was personal assistant to Alexis Merriwether, the once-gorgeous movie star. Part of her job was not to look too young and beautiful. That would’ve annoyed the boss.
“What the hell happened to you?” Schuyler asked me.
My sigh rippled the black surface of my coffee. “I heard from my agent,” I said.
“He didn’t like your new script,” said Jane.
“Oh, is this going to be one of those Hollywood failures stories?” said Wex.
“I love those,” said Chad. “They make me feel so much better about my life.”
“He fired me,” I said.
“Oh, Austin!” said Jane. She put a consoling hand on my arm. Which made me feel even worse.
“He can’t fire you,” said Wex. “He works for you.”
“He told me I needed to find an agent who was a better fit.”
“Wow,” said Wex. “He fired you. The script must’ve really blown the big whistle. Must’ve sucked the hairy straw. Must’ve eaten the …”
“Ted,” said Jane.
“What? I’m just saying.”
But that was exactly the problem: the script had, in fact, eaten whatever it was Ted was about to say it had eaten. It was a terrible script, clichéd and lifeless. The work of a cynical no-talent trying to play to the market. I think I had talent once. I must have. All those awards I won in film school? But failure had beaten the vision out of me. I’d gotten so I’d do anything to avoid the goolie punch of rejection. I used to consult my muse before deciding what project to work on. Nowadays I consulted the box office charts. I would call my agent—my former agent—and ask him: “What are the buyers looking for? Zombies? Spaceships? Superheroes? Great. I have this idea about a superhero on a spaceship full of zombies. I’m really excited about it. I think you’re gonna like it.”
So the script was crap; I knew it. After I sent the final draft to my agent, I immediately caught a cold that lasted six weeks. When the cold cleared up and my agent still hadn’t called, I sank into a depression so bad I finally had to take myself to a psychiatrist. She said I had a chemical imbalance and gave me a prescription for some pills. I filled the prescription and read the label. Possible side effects included impotence and constipation. I hadn’t been with a woman for three months, but I did still enjoy a trip to the bathroom from time to time. So I flushed the pills down the toilet. Chemical imbalance, my ass.
For the next two weeks, I sat in my room with the lights out and waited for my agent to call and reject the script as it deserved. I wasn’t expecting him to fire me though. Life retained its capacity to surprise.
“Hey, look,” said Chad, lifting his chin toward the bar behind me. “Isn’t that your famous and successful brother on TV?”
“Oh man,” said Wexler. “That’s gotta make you feel like shit. Doesn’t it? You already look like shit, but that …”
“Ted,” said Jane Janeway.
“What? I’m just saying.”
I looked over my shoulder at the flatscreen behind the bar. And yes, there was my famous and successful brother, all right. With his great, handsome head and his Viking beard and his swept-back golden hair. And his broad-shouldered frame in his three-piece suit and his PhD in comparative sociology from Harvard. And the title of his latest best-selling book on the chyron: Creating Equality. And his name: Dr. Richard Lively, Orosgo Institute.
Which reminded me: he was in town today, flogging his new book. We were scheduled to have dinner tonight. My parents were coming down from San Francisco to join us. My brother had warned me in an email that we would “have to discuss” Riley, our little sister.
And yes, all of that did make me feel like shit. Almost exactly. The resemblance was uncanny.
WHEN I LEFT Hitchcock’s, I drove to Global Pictures. I had a freelance job there as a story analyst. A “story analyst” is a fancy name for a reader. A reader reads things on assignment—books, screenplays, articles. For each thing he reads, he writes a synopsis and gives his opinion about why it would or would not make a good movie. This is called “coverage.” His boss reads the coverage, and then he can pretend he read the book or the screenplay and has an opinion about it. I’m sure my agent had a reader read my script before he fired me. I’m sure he didn’t read it himself. No one reads in Hollywood except readers. Like me.
My brother, Richard, had gotten me this freelance gig when the money from my script sale ran out. I had called him in a humiliating panic. I’m broke. I don’t know what to do. My brother put me on hold for about three minutes. Then he came back on and told me I had a reader job at Mythos, a production company. My brother could do that because Mythos had a deal with Global Pictures, and Serge Orosgo, the billionaire who funded my brother’s think tank, also owned Global, not to mention major newspapers, television stations, and publishing houses around the world. Richard and Serge were pals.
I drove to the studio in my eight-year-old Nissan, a sputtering, blunt, scratched-and-dented piece of scrap on wheels. A car in LA is like an accent in England: it instantly reveals everything about you. My Nissan sputtered along a freeway streaked with the afterimages of the sleek, low-slung racers that were flashing past me, each as quick as a dismissive glance.
The Global Pictures studio lot was a white-walled fortress that rose out of the long, dismal storefront flatlands of Melrose Avenue. The main entrance was the famous Da Vinci Gate, a victory arch of golden marble topped with elaborate iron filigree, a rococo relic of the industry’s golden age. I thought of the two-toned Rolls Royce Phantoms that once carried actors though that gate into immortality. My Nissan farted pitiably as it idled in a line of Beamers and Teslas waiting to enter.
It was autumn. A cool and sunny day. I parked in one of the spaces near the gate and walked past sound stages, barracks-like buildings as large as dinosaurs. Some had their enormous doors open, and as I passed, I peeked in at the fake interiors of TV shows: a police precinct, a suburban home, a set of law offices. I always liked being on the lot. It made me feel like I was still part of the city’s glamorous enterprise. And how pathetic was that? Like the joke about the guy who shovels out the elephant pen at the circus.
Maybe you should get a better job.
What? And leave show business?
The production company was in the Edison Building, a long four-story barn of yellow brick, circa 1930. Inside, I walked through a maze of identical hallways past identical office doors and up sudden stairways that led to other hallways and other doors equally identical.
Mythos was on floor three, a flashy, modern suite of offices once you pushed through the Depression-era door. Posters decorated the walls behind the cubicles, one-sheets from the films they’d made, most of them in the Captain Samurai superhero franchise, a big-money series of comic-book tentpoles about a young man whose zen powers of something gave him the ability to something something something, who the hell cares. Captain Samurai, Captain Samurai: Vengeance, Captain Samurai: Apocalypse, Captain Samurai: Origins (the reboot), and so on.
My boss, the story editor, Candy Filikin, was on a call when I arrived. So said her assistant, a willowy boy named Ken with a face so bland it could’ve been featureless. He gave me a bottle of water, and I sat and waited in the chair beside his desk. Waited and waited. Twenty minutes. Twenty-five. Staring hypnotized at the posters. Thinking what utter shlock these Samurai pictures were, and how I would have sold my soul to have a screen credit on any one of them.
Finally, Ken said, “Candy is ready for you.”
She was sleek and smart and pretty in an adamant sort of way. Sable hair just so, and bright brown eyes just so, and nose just so, and her smile and her gym-toned figure and her khaki slacks and her blue men’s shirt all business-sharp. She shook my hand when I came into her office, and her hand was cool and dry. She sat in the big armchair in front of her desk, poised and confident, her legs crossed at the knee. I sat on the sofa in front of her, sinking deep into the cushions so that I felt small, a supplicant. Candy asked me if I had made any “discoveries” this week: if any of the scripts and novels I’d read might provide movie material for Mythos.
I snorted in answer. “Candy,” I said, “sometimes, I swear, reading this crap day after day, I feel like a psychiatrist in hell, like I’m listening to the twisted fantasies of damned souls whose last desperate hope for redemption is to transform their perverse imaginings into something like a story.”
“So that would be ‘no,’” said Candy, with a mirthless laugh—a laugh that told me that I and my opinions meant nothing to her. She had seen a hundred smart-ass never-weres like me in this job.
I was out of her office in five minutes. Out again in the mazelike halls. My thundercloud-funk hat now settling down to embrace the whole of me, a thunder-funk shroud. Swathed in the brown fog of it, lost in gloomy thought, I lectured myself: I should give this up. This dream of Hollywood success. I should go to law school like my mother wanted. Get a PhD like my father said. Get out of the business, Austin Lively, before you wake up one day and you’re fifty and you’ve never done anything but sit around coffee shops whining about how the movies are no good anymore, not like the old days.
It was at this point that I looked up and realized I was lost. Lost in the Edison Building. I wasn’t sure which of the identical hallways I was in or which of the identical doors I was in front of or even what floor I was on. I read the plaques on the wall. Netherway Pictures … Perdita Productions … Jess Newfeld & Co …. I’d never heard of any of them. Had I gone down a flight of stairs? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t see a stairway anywhere. How was I supposed to get out of here?
There was a closed door at the end of the hall. I figured that was my best bet: a stairwell probably. I went to it quickly, feeling like an idiot. I tried the knob. It turned easily. I pushed it open and stepped through …
I let out a frightened shout, fighting for balance. Suddenly, I was on the edge of a tremendous drop, at the ledge of a high window. Blue sky swirled above me, filled with stone towers and conical roofs in tilted confusion. Something sparkled and spun through the air beneath me toward the sparkling water far below.
There was noise behind me. Thundering footsteps. Shouts.
My arm flew out for balance as I staggered back from the ledge. I turned around. I looked around, stunned, confused.
I was in a stone room hung with tapestries. There was a woman on the floor in a pool of blood. The woman was beautiful, and she was dead.
She was twenty at most, with round cheeks and a noble brow and golden hair spilling around her face like a halo. She was stretched out on the cold gray stone and clothed in a long, elegant gown of some fine white material. There was a bloody gash in the fabric right below her breasts. Blood stained her bodice. There was blood in a pool all around her.
And there was blood on the dagger—the dagger I was holding in my hand. There was blood dripping off the point of it onto the slab between my feet.
Someone started pounding on the door.